Arab Spring, Turkish Fall
Turkey's leaders are looking less like the new Ottomans they've imagined themselves to be and more like stumbling politicians afraid of a new regional order.
The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the "new Turkey" to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey's so-called "zero problems" foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the "Turkish model" -- the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system -- as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.
The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the "new Turkey" to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey’s so-called "zero problems" foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the "Turkish model" — the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system — as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.
Yet five months into the turmoil buffeting the Arab world, it is hard to discern exactly if Turkey has a policy to deal with the change going on around it. Indeed, rather than a regional leader with a clear sense of purpose, Ankara has been downright clumsy in dealing with the Arab upheavals.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Arab revolutions actually started out pretty well for Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was way ahead of other world leaders in demanding that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak heed the desires of his people and resign. Whether or not Ankara saw the writing on the wall quicker than most, the position was entirely in keeping with the Justice and Development Party’s worldview — and the role Erdogan and other principle party figures fashioned for themselves — as promoters of democratic change at home and abroad. Of course, the difficult personal relationship between Erdogan and Mubarak made it easier for the Turkish leader to dump his counterpart in favor of the multitudes camped out in Tahrir Square. And there was a regional rivalry at play here, too: Ankara sensed that Cairo’s influence was waning and wanted to fashion itself as a new Middle East powerbroker. It seemed that once again Erdogan and his team had insights into the politics of the region that seemed beyond the grasp of others — most notably the Obama administration, which, hamstrung by Washington’s strategic relationship with Mubarak, was far more cautious and circumspect than Ankara.
Then came Libya. Despite the brutality and chaos instigated by Muammar al-Qaddafi, Erdogan found it difficult to decisively cut ties with the Libyan leader: Not only was the Turkish prime minister a personal recipient of the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, but with 30,000 Turks working on $1.5 billion worth of construction projects for the Libyan government, there was a clear economic imperative to maintaining good relations. Indeed, when NATO members began discussing in late February the prospect of a no-fly zone, Turkey — an early member of the alliance — objected. On Feb. 28, Erdogan pointedly told the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing." A few days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that foreign intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition would rob the rebels of the satisfaction of bringing Qaddafi down on their own — this at a time when the Interim Libyan National Council was practically begging for foreign support.
Once the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, the Turkish position became truly strange. Erdogan expressed "heartfelt support" for prohibiting Qaddafi’s use of airpower while simultaneously rejecting the "foreign intervention in friend and brother Libya." Even as NATO airstrikes took out loyalist air defenses, Ankara remained ambivalent toward Qaddafi’s use of force against his own people, curiously committed to the Libyan leader. And though the Turks positioned themselves as the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Libya, they consistently rejected the use of force to protect rebel fighters, arguing instead for a Turkish-brokered cease-fire after which Qaddafi could begin the process of political reform. To the Benghazi rebel leadership, the Turks were, in fact, the culprits behind the noticeable downshift in the NATO air campaign in the previous few weeks. In time, as Turkish diplomatic efforts — primarily through direct communication between the two leaders — to persuade Qaddafi to stand down bore little in the way of positive results, Ankara ultimately came to the conclusion that almost everyone but Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and a group of motley African countries arrived at months ago: Qaddafi must go. On May 3, Erdogan declared to a gathering of journalists in Istanbul, "We wish to see Libya’s leader step down immediately and leave Libya immediately for his own sake and for the sake of his country’s future."
Turkey seems to be engaged in a similar diplomatic dance with regard to Syria. At one time, Ankara and Damascus were hostile neighbors in conflict over the downstream flow of the Euphrates river and Syrian support for the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which targeted the Turkish state in a quixotic campaign of Kurdish independence. During AKP’s tenure, however, relations between the two countries warmed considerably. Syrians and Turks no longer require visas for travel between each country and Turkey has become Syria’s largest trading partner. Although there has been precious little talk of foreign intervention in Syria, just to be sure, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that "internationalization" of the unrest there could lead to "undesired outcomes." Chief among them, from the Turkish perspective, would be the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Turks have much to be worried about when it comes to a destabilized Syria — in particular a restive Kurdish region just to Turkey’s south. It would also be a setback for Ankara’s Middle East strategy, of which warm relations with Damascus have been central. Given those interests, it is unlikely that the Turks will break with Assad in the way they have now abandoned Qaddafi.
Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to "implement [reforms] without further delay" and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad’s efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, "What democratic reforms?" The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad — a distinct possibility — then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.
Among the many myths that the Arab spring has shattered is the legend of Turkish foreign policy in the era of the AKP. If officials in Ankara are to be believed, Turkey’s diplomacy has, over the course of the last decade — and very often over the objections of Washington — had a decisively positive effect on conflicts and problems from the Balkans and the Caucuses to Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But Turkey’s prideful rhetoric only masked the contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of its foreign policy. Erdogan, Davutoglu, and their advisors have to come to grips with how hard it is to master the Middle East.
There was always a lot less to Ankara’s influence in the Arab world than met the eye. Turkish leaders love the anecdotes about Arabs watching Turkish soap operas, the posters of Erdogan in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the comparison between the Turkish prime minister and Gamal Abdel Nasser — but the new Ottomans have found it as difficult to manage the politics of the region as the Sultans before them. At base, the Turks managed a measure of influence during a period of Arab decay.
It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara’s interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished — not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.
Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, will be published in June 2024. Twitter: @stevenacook
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.